Vintage photos show what life looked like behind the Iron Curtain

  • Before the end of the Cold War, the Iron Curtain cut off the Soviet Union from the rest of Europe.

  • Life there was restricted, but as its leaders changed, Western influence began to reach residents.

  • Still, some older generations held on to the communist structure and devotion to the state.

The Iron Curtain was a figurative and ideological wall — and eventually a physical one — that separated the Soviet Union from western Europe after World War II.

The name, widely attributed to Winston Churchill, hinted that life in the USSR was secretive and very different from other western, capitalist countries.

But vintage photos provide a peek behind the curtain and show that, while members of the Soviet Union worked tirelessly to prove its power to the rest of the world, there was also time for music, shopping, and vacations in the sun.

Here's what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.

The Iron Curtain was a figurative and political barrier that divided Europe.

iron curtain photos
Gorky Street in Moscow.Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

It sealed off the Soviet Union from Western countries between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War in 1991.

Tour buses in front of the Winter Palace in what was then called Leningrad in 1970.
Tour buses in front of the Winter Palace in what was then called Leningrad in 1970.Bettmann/Getty Images

The Soviet Union was believed to be brutally restrictive, but after Joseph Stalin died in 1953, there were changes to everyday life.

iron curtain photos
Colleagues congratulate the best seamstress of the sewing shop.TASS/Getty Images

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

In 1961, the Berlin Wall was built, and a combination of curiosity and fascination with American culture began to build throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

Women drinking at a bar in Moscow in 1974.
Women drinking at a bar in Moscow in 1974.Michel ARTAULT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images


Some of this fascination was fueled by the US State Department, which sent popular American music to Eastern Europe.

jazz band ussr
A jazz band of college students inspired by American jazz.Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Music like jazz gave people a chance to experiment with a new version of entertainment they were otherwise unfamiliar with.

jazz in the ussr
Young men play jazz on the street.LUBOMIR KOTEK/AFP/Getty Images

But Soviet leaders continued to ban rock 'n' roll music.

punk rock ussr
Punks rocking out in St. Petersburg.Joanna Stingray/Getty Images

Source: Smithsonian Magazine

"Style hunters" were basically the Soviet version of today's hipsters. They would listen to smuggled music and dance in hidden discotheques before the police busted them.

style hunters
A group of style hunters rocking the wildest outfits they can come up with.Marc DEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Fascination with punk style took the youth by storm, and punks would do anything to get their hands on even just a few seconds of rock 'n' roll.

punk ussr
This group of punks is probably everything the Soviet leaders feared.Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

Source: The Guardian 


In the 1950s, "bone records" were old X-rays printed on flimsy vinyl sheets that were used to share American rock music. The sound quality was awful, but it provided the taste of rebellion they were after.

A punk messes around in 1987.Marc DEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Sports, and particularly soccer, were popular in the Soviet Union. When the soccer team won the European Championship in 1960, there were huge celebrations.

The Soviet Union played Yugoslavia in the 1960 final.
The Soviet Union played Yugoslavia in the 1960 final.STAFF/AFP via Getty Images

In the earlier years of the Soviet Union, Stalin's leadership had organized teams as a way for the state to maintain control.

soccer team ussr
A soccer team in Moscow, Russia in 1960.Photo by V. Sychev/TASS/Getty Images

While the government was no longer in complete control by the 1960s, they still used victories as a propaganda tool and claimed success whenever there was a big win.

Source: livemint, futbolgrad


But as younger citizens stirred up trouble, members of the older generation continued to represent Soviet culture and abide by the communist lifestyle.

Commuters in Moscow in 1967.
Commuters in Moscow in 1967.Sepia Times/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Public transport was a crucial tool to keep the republics connected. The Moscow Metro system was known to be the best kept to flaunt socialist success.

moscow metro
The Moscow Metro pulling into the station.Vitaly Sozinov/TASS/Getty Images

Source: ForeignPolicy

But public buses were the predominant means of transportation.

moscow bus
A bus pulls around Central Square.Mark Redkin/FotoSoyuz/Getty Images

On a normal day, adults would head off to work and occasionally browse a store.

shopping ussr
Men and women head off to work on a sunny day.Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Photographer David Hlynsky told Fast Company that "very few products were branded with anything like the legendary trademarks of the West."

shopping ussr
A group of women admire a display of plain clothing in Moscow, 1977.Gilbert UZAN/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Source: Fast Company

Rather," he said, "these were generic products devoid of any accompanying mythology."

A sales assistant shows clothing to shoppers in the GUM department store, in Red Square, Moscow, Russia, Soviet Union, 1961.
A sales assistant shows clothing to shoppers in the GUM department store in Moscow in 1961.James McAnally/Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Pictured, a sales assistant shows shirts to customers at the GUM department store, known as the State Department store, in Red Square, Moscow.

Nikita Khrushchev, a former Soviet statesman, visited the US in the 1960s and tried to bring the concept of the Western supermarket to the Soviet Union, but it didn't catch on.

soviet food shopping
A group of people stock up on their fruits and vegetables.Illustré/RDB/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Source: Geohistory

The production and distribution systems just couldn't keep up, and most Soviet citizens continued to shop at small mom-and-pop stores.

Shoppers at a store in Moscow in 1967.
Shoppers at a store in Moscow in 1967.Avalon/Getty Images

Winter in Eastern Europe is known for its extremely cold temperatures, making daily commutes and grocery runs even harder.

winter in ussr
A woman stands bundled up in central Moscow.Simon Knott/Getty Images

But come the summertime, the sunshine and trips to the beach united everyone.

beach day ussr
Children admire a painting on a sunny beach day in Russia.Vladimir Bogdanov/FotoSoyuz/Getty Images

Extreme weather didn't stop military parades.

red square celebration
Crowds cheer alongside the parade as military tanks roll by on November 7, 1977.TASS/Getty Images

Every November, thousands would gather in below-freezing weather to celebrate the Soviet Union's anniversary in front of the Red Square.

red square parade
Tanks roll past a huge Lenin portrait in front of the Red Square on November 7, 1977.Bettmann/Getty Images

Missiles were displayed to show the Soviet Union's military power and capabilities.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles parade through Red Square on the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in 1969.
Intercontinental ballistic missiles parade through Red Square in 1969.Jerry Cooke/Corbis via Getty Images

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